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Feeling Alone is Physically Painful

I remember coming home from the grocery store recently having been thrilled to leave the busy store and get back to the quiet of my own house. I walked in the door, put away my items and then looked around my kitchen. I was struck with a feeling of how alone and empty I was. The house was quiet, my cats were asleep, and I did not have a romantic relationship to distract from the aloneness.

I was alone with myself. I recognized a little tinge of panic creep up… okay a lot of panic… but I was sure to push it down quickly and promptly distracted myself with a TV show. I refused to let myself feel the discomfort of the loneliness.

The Physical Pain of Loneliness

Later this experience, caused me to reflect: “What’s so uncomfortable about being alone?” My answer surprised me. Aloneness feels empty, hallow, tightening in my chest and throat. Well of course I don’t want to feel any of that. Yuck!

The emotion of loneliness actually has a physical component. While your body’s experience of the lonely feeling might be different than mine, if you reflected on the sensation, I bet yours is physically painful too. That’s why we chose to distract ourselves when we feel it. We make plans, do work, read books, watch TV, play on our phones, do yard work, or even chores to keep the feeling away.

Working With Loneliness Not Against It

The idea of staying busy is really a distraction. There’s all kinds of pop culture psychology sayings that say that we should “stay busy,” “get moving,” or even “do something nice for yourself.” All this is helpful to dull the acuteness of the loneliness, but it doesn’t solve the problem. The only cure for loneliness is connection with others.

You have to do the hard work of accepting the emotion of loneliness, feeling it, look at your life to see what’s keeping it sticking around, and then change something! You must be in meaningful relationship with other people or you will always be alone.

Some people would rather spend lifetimes in distraction and fake productivity than do the really hard work of reflection and changing the way they behave. If you don’t have good friends, what is it about you is keeping them away? You may have to be willing to ask for some feedback about this from some trusted others (therapist, family, co-workers, etc.) and start making changes. You may have to look at some really hard truths about how other people see you before you can fix a loneliness problem.

For example, maybe you are quiet and no one knows the real you, because you don’t share enough. Maybe you have the all too familiar “resting b*tch face” and make the excuse that “it’s just my face,” rather than working to change it and become more aware you are doing it. (Learn more about social signaling.)  Maybe you live in a tiny town and there is no one to date for miles – MOVE!

As tough as it is to admit, when we feel lonely, it’s probably a direct result of our behaviors. We would like to blame external factors, rather than acknowledge our parts in the matter. The best part of reflecting on loneliness is that, it’s a fixable problem. There are tons of other people that are lonely out there and looking for connection. You just have to open yourself up to the search.

Feeling Alone is Physically Painful

Hope Arnold

Hope is a Radically Open DBT Senior Clinician and 1-day trainer for Radically Open LTD organization. As a self identified overcontrolled person, she works to help her clients learn to relax, take themselves less seriously and be the person they want to be. Perfectionism, anxiety, rigidity, detailed focus, risk aversion and loneliness are some of the areas that overcontrolled people struggle to navigate. In her writing Hope uses humor and real life stories to help overcontrolled individuals make the changes that will bring happiness to their lives. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

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APA Reference
Arnold, H. (2018). Feeling Alone is Physically Painful. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 17 Jun 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 17 Jun 2018
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